A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Auxerrois - Alsace, France; Oregon, USA & Wormeldange Nussbaum, Luxembourg

Auxerrois is a grape that frequently travels in disguise.  It covers nearly 5,000 acres of land in Alsace, more than Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc, but you virtually never see its name on the label of a Alsatian wine.  Quite a bit of it finds its way into wines labeled "Edelzwicker", which is a generic term for any blended wine in Alsace.  Another portion of it ends up in the sparkling wines of Alsace which are simply labeled Cremant d'Alsace.  The most common wines that Auxerrois grapes end up in, though, are actually varietally labeled wines, but they are labeled as Pinot Blanc.  Exactly why has always eluded me but the fact of the matter is if you buy a wine from Alsace that is labeled as Pinot Blanc, there's a better than average chance that there's some Auxerrois juice in there somewhere.  That wouldn't be all that surprising as most regions allow some percentage of varietally labeled wines to be made up of other grapes, but it is possible that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc can actually be made up mostly of Auxerrois juice, or possibly even be 100% Auxerrois.  How can this be?

As mentioned above, I'm not exactly sure about the answer, but have found two explanations that are pretty similar.  According to Wikipedia, the words Pinot Blanc on a label in Alsace don't refer to a grape variety but rather to a white wine that is made from any of the Pinot varieties, which, according to the authorities, are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Auxerrois, which is the same as Auxerrois blanc.  The other theory I've seen in a few places (like the Wall Street Journal and whatever this is) simply states that the law says that wines labeled as Pinot Blanc can be made from either Pinot Blanc or Auxerrois with each grape allowed to comprise any part of the blend, from 0% to 100%.  The Alsatian winemaker in this video indicates that the latter explanation is essentially right, though his reading of the law is that if a wine has at least 1% Pinot Blanc and the rest is Auxerrois, it is labeled as Pinot Blanc.  I'm having a rather difficult time navigating the INAO website in order to find the relevant bit of legislation, so I'm afraid I can't really weigh in on the matter, though I do find myself leaning towards the latter explanation since it seems to have the most support online across sources and since I've not heard of Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir ever being used in Pinot Blanc labeled wines.

Whatever the case may be, it seems like it might be important to suss out the exact relationship between Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc as most explanations seem to hinge on it to some extent.  Some sources indicate that Auxerrois is a clone/mutation of Pinot Noir, which, if true, would make it virtually identical to Pinot Blanc, as both would be simply white-berried mutations of the same parent plant.  It also would explain the source for the name Pinot Auxerrois and would lend some credence to Wikipedia's assertion that the INAO regards it as a member of the Pinot family.  Other sources indicate that Auxerrois is a sibling of Pinot Blanc, which would mean that the two grapes shared the same parentage and, further, that Auxerrois is a sibling to Pinot Noir as well.  This explanation would seem to lend more credence to the second explanation above as it would mean that Auxerrois wasn't a member of the Pinot family (in the genetic sense, where members of a grape "family" are all clones from a single parent vine and not in the more common sense where members of a family are parents, siblings, cousins, etc.) but was related in some way that could explain its being lumped together with Pinot Blanc.

Though both of those explanations have some degree of explanatory power in trying to understand the INAO laws, both of them are wrong.  In 1999, a team at UC Davis found that the grapes Pinot Noir (or one of the Pinots, in any case) and Gouais Blanc were the parents of a slew of French grapes such as Aligoté, Gamay and Chardonnay, among others (Bowers, J., Boursiquot, J., This, P., Chu, K., Johansson, H., & Meredith, C. (1999). Historical Genetics: The Parentage of Chardonnay, Gamay, and Other Wine Grapes of Northeastern France. Science, 285(5433), 1562).  One of those offspring was none other than Auxerrois, which means that Auxerrois is related to Pinot Blanc, but as an offspring rather than as a clonal variant or a sibling (remember that Pinot Blanc is simply a mutation of Pinot Noir and that they are genetically indistinguishable using modern DNA analyses, so for pedigree reconstruction and family relation purposes, they're the same grape).  This also means that Auxerrois is a full sibling of Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Aligoté, Romorantin and Melon (more commonly known as Muscadet), among others.

To add to the confusion, the name Auxerrois is also used for a handful of other grapes.  In the Moselle region of France, Chardonnay was once known as Auxerrois Blanc while Auxerrois proper is known as Auxerrois Blanc de Laquenexy.  I don't know what, who or where Laquenexy is, so if someone else knows, please enlighten me.  Auxerrois is also occasionally used to refer to Malbec in the Cahors region of France, though the two grapes are not related to one another.  In Alsace, Pinot Gris is sometimes known as Auxerrois Gris, though I don't believe that term ever finds its way onto a bottle.

As mentioned above, Auxerrois is most widely grown in the Alsace region of France, but it is planted in limited quantities in Germany and is especially prized in the tiny country of Luxembourg, which is located just west of Germany and just south of Belgium.  The entire country of Luxembourg is fewer than 1000 square miles and has a population of about half a million.  The entire country has about 3200 acres planted to the vine, which is less than the total amount of Auxerrois grown in Alsace.  Luxembourg is pretty far north so ripening is an issue here, but since Auxerrois is pretty naturally low in acid, slightly under-ripe versions are palatable and, some might argue, more interesting than wines made from fully ripened grapes.  The Mosel River forms part of the country's border with Germany to the southeast and this is where much of the vineyard land is concentrated.

As you might imagine, Luxembourg doesn't produce a ton of wine, but I was able to find a bottle of the 2009 Clos des Rochers Auxerrois from the Wormeldange Nussbaum site in Luxembourg.  The Cru system in Luxembourg appears to not be linked to geography (geographically all Luxembourg wines fall into the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation) but rather to the evaluations of a tasting panel who score the wines on a 20 point scale. This wine was labeled as Grand Premier Cru, which is the highest level, and which means that the wine was submitted for tasting at least three times, with one of those tastings happening prior to bottling.  The wine is then tasted again after bottling and if it is scored higher than 16, it can be re-submitted for a third tasting.  If it scores above an 18 at the third tasting, then and only then can it be labeled Grand Premier Cru (it's an odd system you can read more about here).  I picked this bottle up for about $15 from my friends at Bin Ends.  In the glass this wine was a pale silvery lemon color with greenish tints.  The nose was moderately intense with white peach, lemon peel, honey and honeysuckle aromas.  In the glass the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  It was off-dry with flavors of ripe peaches, pineapple, orange cream, ripe pear and honey.  It was a big, ripe, round wine that was somewhat Riesling-like but which lacked the laser sharp acidity that is the hallmark of great Rieslings.  I enjoyed the wine quite a bit and found it to be a very good value at only $15.

The next wine that I was able to try was the 2009 Adelsheim Ribbon Springs Vineyard Auxerrois from Oregon.  I picked this wine up locally for about $22.  In the glass this wine was a medium silvery lemon color.  The nose was moderately intense with delicate ripe pear and honey notes.  The aroma kind of reminded me of clean river water as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were racy flavors of green apple and lime with a touch of white pear.  The finish was clean and minerally, if a bit tart.  This wine walks the fine balance between tart citrus and plump white fruits very well and the clean, stony finish is refreshing and lovely.  It was much drier than the Luxembourg wine and also a bit leaner and more delicate as well.  It's a nice wine but not really worth the step up in price from the Luxembourg wine.

The last wine that I tried was the 2010 Valentin Zusslin "Pinot d'Alsace" Auxerrois from Alsace.  It can be difficult to find Alsatian Auxerrois that is labeled as such, so I was pretty excited when I found this bottle over at the Wine Bottega for about $25.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color.  On the nose the wine was fairly intense with aromas of peach, lemon curd, green tea, green apples and a touch of apple cider.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were racy flavors of ripe peach, green apple and apple cider.  The flavors were pure and very intense, but overall the wine was nicely balanced with good acidity and a nice, clean, minerally finish.  It had the intensity of the Luxembourg wine but was dry like the Oregon wine and really integrated the best qualities of both of those wines nicely.  It was the most expensive of the three wines, but I felt like it was really worth the money.

I've always enjoyed Pinot Blanc wines from Alsace (especially Zind-Humbrecht's bottling), but I've found that I generally don't like Pinot Blanc based wines from other areas.  Tasting through these three wines, I think that it's pretty clear that it's the presence of the Auxerrois grape that I'm really responding to.  Auxerrois has a reputation of making flabby, low-acid wines, but I found that the acid content in these three wines was nicely managed and the purity and intensity of the fruit really put the best examples over the top.  I'd definitely recommend picking one up if you come across it, especially with the warmer months of summer on the way.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Passerina - Marche, Italy

I've mentioned in the past that doing Google image searches on grape names often yields unexpected results.  In doing this I've learned about a video game character named Verdelet and a painter named Grechetto.  I've also learned that Grillo is the Italian word for cricket and that Trousseau is the name of a company that makes bridal gowns (that post was a two-fer as I also learned about a baseball pitcher named Bastardo, which is one of the synonyms for Trousseau).  Today's Google image search on the Passerina grape was definitely the most colorful, though, as apparently Passerina is a bird genus within the Cardinal family.  The North American Buntings belong to the Passerina genus and are quite colorful and vibrant to look at so if you're having a dreary kind of day, take a quick break to look at this page of birds and hopefully they'll brighten your day a bit.

Feel better?  Good.  The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that around page 2 of the GIS, pictures of some plants start to show up that definitely aren't grapevines.  There is also apparently a genus of plants called Passerina which you can read all about here.  Believe it or not, there is a common link between the birds, the plants and the grape.  In all three cases, the name Passerina comes from the Latin word Passerinus, which means "sparrow-like."  This is pretty self-explanatory for the birds, as they do in fact resemble sparrows, though they are not related to them.  The plants that belong to the Passerina genus have seeds that are curved and somewhat beak-like so their name comes from the fact that they're said to resemble sparrows' beaks.  The grape Passerina is so named because it is apparently the snack of choice for the sparrows in the Marche region of Italy where it is grown.

Fascinating as all that may be, we're not interested in sparrows, buntings or weird plants here.  We're interested in grapes and wines and the one we're interested in today is called Passerina.  Passerina is grown exclusively in the Marche region on Italy's eastern coast.  It's not a very common grape, but it does find its way into a few DOC wines like those of Offida (where it can be made into a dry table wine, a passito style dessert wine, a vin santo style dessert wine or a metodo classico sparkling wine) or of Falerio dei Colli Ascolani.  It gets a cursory treatment in the Oxford Companion to Wine whose entry on it reads in full: "white variety from Italy's Adriatic coast."  Wikipedia offers a little more, telling us that the vine has "large berries, high yields and a long ripening period" and that the grape makes "appealing wines with clear, focused fruit."

Once we move away from these two sources, Passerina becomes a bit more complicated.  In his Brunello to Zibibbo, Nicolas Belfrage mentions that Passerina may be the same grape as Biancame and Bianchello, though he notes that his sources are not in unanimous agreement on the matter. The New York Times Wine Club website takes this position as well, but I can't find any other sources that agree.  I checked the VIVC database but the information that they have only muddies the water.  According to the VIVC, Passerina is a synonym for both Trebbiano di Toscana as well as Mostosa in Italy (with presumably the same etymological link to sparrows), though those grapes aren't grown in the Marche so they probably aren't what we're dealing with here.  The only entry listed with Passerina as the prime cultivar name is for a Greek grape, and though this (admittedly non-academic and sales oriented) source posits a Greek origin for Passerina, they're the only ones who make that assertion so I'm taking it with a grain of salt.  Since it doesn't look like anyone's done the DNA studies to prove or disprove the link between Passerina and Bianchello, the only option seems to be to note that the Italian government treats the two grapes as individual cultivars and follow suit.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2008 Capestrano Passerina from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $8.  In the glass this wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was reserved with some lemon peel and fennel bulb aromas.  It was subtle, but the overall sensation from the nose was herbaceous.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  There were some ripe apple and lemony citrus flavors along with a stony minerality and a vegetal, herbaceous kind of fennel bulb edge.  The flavors were very subdued and washed out.  This wine was almost certainly past its prime and was mostly just kind of clean and minerally, which isn't always a bad thing, but it really lacked the acidic backbone that it needed to make it refreshing and interesting to drink.  It certainly resembled the Bianchello I tried before, but it's hard to draw any real conclusions from that since the bulk of their similarities have to do with their lack of flavor and interest, which can honestly be said about an awful lot of white wines throughout the world.  I'd be interested to try a DOC version sometime and if I run across any I'll be sure to post any notes here.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Antão Vaz - Alentejano, Portugal

I love Portuguese wines, but I hate trying to research them.  There are unique grape varieties throughout Portugal that I'm always excited to find in my local shop and am usually excited to drink as well, but when I sit down and try to write about them, it's very tough going.  There really aren't any books on Portuguese wine in general (the best of them has been out of print for a few years and is currently going for at least $150 second hand) and my online sources rarely have more than a sentence or two about any individual grape.  Today's grape, Antão Vaz, doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry and its Oxford Companion to Wine entry reads in full: "white grape increasingly favoured by winemakers in the Alentejo, southern Portugal, where it is now producing sound varietal wines."  There's not much there to try to stretch into a full blog post.

I found myself wondering why this might be the case.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually knew very little about Portugal's history as a nation, and it turns out that this history is pretty important in understanding the current state of the Portuguese wine industry.  As mentioned in a few of my posts on the Georgian wine industry and the Romanian wine industry, the political climate within a given country can have at least as much of an impact on the wine industry as the natural climate can, and is often much more important.  Given Portugal's historical standing as one of the great European powers in the world and their current standing as one of the great developed nations of western Europe, it's easy to forget that there was a period of time in between where things didn't look quite so good.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, Portugal was one of the great nations of the world.  Many of history's great explorers, like Vasco da Gama, were Portuguese and Portugal used its navy to become an active colonial power, claiming territories in places as geographically disparate as Brazil and Taiwan.  Their empire faltered and fell apart, as all of the great colonial empires did, throughout the next few centuries.  The modern history of Portugal can perhaps be said to have started in 1908 with the assassination of King Dom Carlos I and his heir apparent.  Manuel II was pronounced King, but his reign was shortlived.  The military overthrew the monarchy for good on October 5, 1910, and the Portuguese First Republic was founded.  This republican government was able to stay in power until 1926 when the military stepped in and overthrew it, establishing the Ditadura Nacional, or National Dictatorship.  This was followed in 1933 by the Estada Novo, or Second Republic, which was implemented by António Salazar who remained in power until 1968.

Salazar reorganized both the government and the economy based on the theory of corporatism (which you'll just have to read about here, if you're interested, as I'm not sure I can accurately summarize it).  The wine industry was part of this reorganization as well and many co-operatives were set up for the production of wine.  The State had a large degree of control over the industry, which is almost always a recipe for disaster for the production of quality wines as the State's interests are almost always profit-oriented rather than quality-oriented.  The overall quality of Portuguese wines began to fall and that fact coupled with the fact that many countries weren't comfortable dealing with authoritarian regimes led to the isolation of Portugal politically and culturally from the rest of Europe and also served to isolate the Portuguese wine industry as well.

The Portuguese government was once again overthrown by its military in 1974 during the Carnation Revolution.  This revolution started the process of independence for Portugal's overseas colonies and paved the way for a democratic government to come into power.  The new Portuguese constitution was ratified in 1976 and Portugal joined the EU in 1986.  Portugal has made tremendous strides in a very short period of time in a multitude of different economic theaters, but the resurrection of their wine industry in a mere 40 years has been truly remarkable.  Their wines have dramatically increased in quality and are distributed in greater and greater numbers to the US and to other countries throughout the world.

One of the consequences of the state-run wine industry was that there wasn't much research conducted on the history of Portugal's wealth of native grapes.  When wine is treated solely as a commercial product, the details of the grapes themselves are of little consequence and there's virtually no reason to devote any time or resources to tracking or tracing their particular histories or characteristics.  There has been a bit of renewed inquiry lately, but most of the studies that I've found have been focused on testing large collections of genetic material to eliminate synonymies across different regions, which are interesting to some extent but ultimately don't really offer any information about the grapes that don't have any alter egos in other areas.  The other issue is that, historically, Portugal has mostly produced fortified and sweet wines for export and their turn to making dry table wines is a very recent phenomenon.  There may be a lack of historical information about many of these grapes simply because they are only recently being used in dry table wines meant for export.

All of which is to say that there's very little information available about the Antão Vaz grape.  It is one of the better regarded native Portuguese vines, but is grown almost exclusively in the Vidigueira region of Alentejano, which is located about halfway in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Spanish border in the southern half of Portugal.  The grapes are large with thick skins and their clusters are somewhat loosely packed, all of which are helpful in combating fungal infections of the vine.  It is somewhat similar to Chardonnay in that it makes crisp, lively wines with nice acidity if picked early but can also make bigger more alcoholic wines that are suitable for barrel aging if left on the vine a bit longer.  It is somewhat frequently made into a varietal wine, though it is also occasionally blended with other local grapes like Arinto.

I was able to find a bottle of the 2005 Dolium Escolha Antão Vaz from my friends at Curtis Liquors for about $20.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep gold color.  The nose was intense with baked apple and pear fruits along with a cheesy, leesy kind of aroma.  There were also aromas of butter and something biscuitty or pastry-like that hinted at the wine's exposure to some oak.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with fairly high acidity.  There were flavors of toasted almonds, baked pears and pie dough.  This wine was definitely past its peak, but it was still hanging in there.  It developed nicely as it approached room temperature and was much more pleasant to drink warm than with a chill.  Some ripe red apple notes began to appear, though the wine was still very nutty.  I'm not generally a fan of oaked white wines but the oak (French oak, according to the label) was pretty well integrated here, though whether that's a function of its age or of a deft winemaker's touch is unclear from this vantage point.  Fans of delicately oaked Chardonnays will likely find a lot to like in this wine, even at seven years old.  I'd like to get my hands on a younger version and if I'm able to find one, I'll certainly pick it up and provide an update here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Norton - Northern Virginia and Texas Hill Country, USA

As I mentioned in my last post on the Petit Manseng grape, I recently spent some time in Virginia Wine country with the Taste Camp group.  I had been looking for an excuse to get down to Virginia not only to visit my brother, who moved there very recently, but also to track down a wine made from a grape that I had read about called Norton.  I missed out when the Wine Blogger's Conference was there last year so when I saw that Taste Camp was essentially giving me a second chance, I jumped at the opportunity.

A few years ago I read Todd Kliman's book The Wild Vine which is a fascinating account of the history of the Norton grape as well as the history of a modern winemaker in northern Virginia who is intensely passionate about the grape and who really evangelizes for it in the United States.  It's a fascinating read and ever since I finished it I've been hoping for an opportunity to make it down to Virginia and try some wines made from it.  While the grape is perhaps most firmly established in Missouri, Virginia does have a substantial amount of acreage devoted to it and I had expected that some of the wineries we would be interacting with might bring some along.  To my surprise (and, let's face it, disappointment), none of the wineries who were participating in Taste Camp brought any Norton-based wines.  I wasn't about to come all this way and not get the one thing I had set out for, though, so once again my wife and I had to go off-menu to track down some Norton wines.  Before we get to those, though, I'd like to take a brief look at the grape itself and its history.

The Norton grape is named for Dr. Daniel Norton, a Virginia physician who grew grapes on his farm as a hobby.  In addition to growing grapes, Norton was also interested in creating new grape varieties.  Some of these new grapes were created by deliberate cross-pollination between two different vines while others were the result of natural cross-pollination by vines that happened to be planted in close proximity to one another.  It appears that the Norton grape was the result of the latter process, which means that its exact parentage is difficult to tease out.  In a book (or possibly a sales catalogue) published in 1830 (the year of Norton's commercial introduction), William Prince, the horticulturist who first marketed the Norton vine, indicates that Norton resulted from a planted seed of a now extinct vine known as Bland (named for a certain Colonel Bland and not as a commentary on its flavor characteristics) which was likely pollinated by a Pinot Meunier vine.  Prince ostensibly received this information directly from Norton himself which means that Dr. Norton believed that this was the true parentage of his namesake grape.

This story is recounted in a 2004 article on the Norton grape, whose authors don't buy it.  They maintain that since Norton so closely resembles other aestivalis vines, the more likely explanation is that a Bland vine was pollinated by a nearby aestivalis vine, and not by Pinot Meunier.  In 2009, a research team conducted DNA analysis on Norton in order to see whether its exact parentage could be determined.  The team was unable to find a parent-match within their grape database, but they were able to rule out Pinot Meunier as a parent.  Their analysis also confirmed the aestivalis connection, indicating that its DNA profile was consistent with what a vinifera x aestivalis hybrid should look like.

Norton's origins have been further obscured by the claims of a certain F.W. Lemosy who maintains that his father, Dr. F.A. Lemosy, actually discovered the Norton vine growing wild on Cedar Island in the James River in Richmond, Virginia.  Lemosy maintains that his father told Dr. Norton about this vine that he had found which produced excellent fruit, which prompted Norton to find the vine, dig it up and plant it on his own farm.  While something like this may well have happened, it is unlikely that the plant in question was Norton itself. For starters, Lemosy maintains that this happened around 1835, which is a full five years after Norton was made available for commercial sale by Norton and Prince.  In addition, the DNA analysis referenced above clearly shows vinifera DNA in the Norton vine which would be difficult to account for in a wild vine grown on an island in the US.

Norton's genetic and familial history may be murky and unclear (except for its relation to the Cynthiana grape, which it is genetically identical to), but its history as a wine-making grape is certainly not.  After its release in 1830, it quickly became very popular in the eastern United States.  It's important to remember that at this time, phylloxera was still a mystery and while growers in the US didn't understand why the vinifera vines they planted kept dying, the fact of the matter was that they were dying.  The only grapes that were able to survive and flourish were native American grapes or hybrids, most of which possessed the unpleasant "foxy" taste and aroma that so many wine drinkers found distasteful.  Norton was (and still is) unique in that it possesses virtually none of those flavors.  It is also resistant to a variety of vine diseases other than phylloxera and is able to tolerate the hot and humid growing seasons of the eastern US as far south as northeastern Georgia (it's also quite cold hardy and resistant to frost damage, which is always a problem on the east coast no matter how far south you go).

Norton was planted widely on the east coast and also further inland in places like Missouri and Arkansas.  It reached the apex of its fame in 1873 at the Vienna World Exposition when a Missouri wine made from it won a gold medal.  The wine in question prompted noted wine critic Henry Vizetelly to remark that Missouri Norton would one day rival the great wines of Europe.  Alas, that day hasn't come and we have Prohibition to thank for it.  Grape growers who had planted Norton began pulling up their vines in order to plant Concord grapes which they could sell for juice or jelly production and by the end of Prohibition, few Norton vines were left.  Norton wasn't widely replanted following Prohibition because the Phylloxera riddle had been solved by then, meaning that winemakers interested in making European style wines could actually plant European vines now rather than hybrids or native grapes.  A stigma began to form regarding these "inferior" grapes, regardless of their actual qualities, and plantings of Norton dwindled.

It's hard to call what has happened to the Norton grape in recent years a renaissance, but interest in it has definitely increased.  In his 1985 book The Wines of America, noted American wine historian Leon D. Adams called Norton "the best of all native American red-wine grapes."  The most recent edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine says that Norton is "arguably the only variety of American Vine Species origin making a premium quality wine."  As mentioned above, Todd Kliman has written an entire book on Norton and its history in the United States, and though his tone is more journalistic, the fact that there's enough material and substance for an entire book on the grape must speak to some kind of interest.  Despite all of that, though, none of the wineries representing Norton's birth-state brought a Norton wine to any of the group tastings at Taste Camp and in order to try one I had to take a side-trip to Chrysalis Vineyards, which was the winery more or less at the center of Kliman's The Wild Vine.

Chrysalis is crazy about the Norton grape.  When you visit their website, you're instantly greeted by the (apparently trademarked) phrase "Norton, the real American grape."  Chrysalis boasts the single largest planting of Norton in the world, though it's difficult to find an exact planting figure (Wikipedia's estimate of 69 acres doesn't jive with Chrysalis's claim that they have 71 acres under vine total, given the number of other wines that Chrysalis has available for purchase).  I didn't get a chance to chat with anyone at the winery or try any of their other wines as I was dashing between various Taste Camp events, but I was able to pick up two different bottles of Norton from them.  The first was their basic 2009 Norton which retails for $17 in their tasting room.  In the glass this wine was a deep purple ruby color.  The nose was fairly intense with black cherry, black plum, blueberry and smoke aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of black cherry, tart cherry, smoke, meat, spice and blackberry.  It also had a kind of sour cherry pit or cranberry kind of taste that I'm used to seeing in many of the red hybrid wines that I try.  Overall I thought this wine was fairly interesting and well-balanced.  It is very fruit-forward, but the fruit isn't jammy or sweet.  If I were comparing this to other pure native American grape-based wines I've had, this would win in a runaway.  Since my research is telling me that this is more likely a hybrid grape, those are what I'm really comparing it to, and it stacks up pretty well to those wines as well.  It doesn't have the depth and complexity of a vinifera based wine, but it is similar to something like Marechal Foch or Chambourcin.

The second wine that I picked up from Chrysalis was their 2009 Locksley Reserve which retails for about $35.  It's not clear what the difference is between this and the basic bottling as the Chrysalis website only offers "Locksley Reserve Norton is our very best - our flagship wine," without getting into too much detail about what makes it better.  Presumably there's some kind of selection made either in the vineyard or in the winery regarding the quality of either the grapes or the developing wine and the best stuff is put into this bottling.  In the glass this wine was a deep, inky purple-ruby color with a narrow lavender rim.  The nose was fairly intense with black cherry, chocolate covered dried cherry, black berry, wild blueberry and cocoa aromas.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity and medium tannins.  There were flavors of black cherry, blackberry, charcoal, espresso, black plum and rich bittersweet chocolate.  This wine was much deeper and denser than the regular bottling.  The fruitiness was really cut by the dark, earthy chocolate and coffee flavors.  This wine represents a clear step up in quality from the basic bottling and probably does warrant the 100% price markup as well.  I was told by other Taste Camp attendees more familiar with this grape that it does reward (if not demand) some bottle age so I'd be curious to try something a bit more mature, but I was impressed enough by this bottling to seek out other Nortons on my next trip down to Virginia.

The final wine I'd like to take a look at is something I picked up in my Boston area from my friends over at the Spirited Gourmet.  It's a Port style wine made in the Hill Country of Texas, which seems to be located in central Texas, just over the curl and to the east of the panhandle.  This is a 500mL bottle from the 2007 vintage at Dickson winery called "Quinta la Cruz" and it retails for around $50.  I was told that this was 100% Norton, but the bottle doesn't say and I can't find anything online about this wine, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess.  In the glass this wine was an opaque inky black color with a narrow brown rim.  The nose was very intense with raisin, prune, dried cherry, burnt sugar and rose aromas.  There was also a bizarre acetone kind of note that blew off somewhat but was still present even a few days after pulling the cork.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with high acidity.  It was medium sweet, though very tart on the attack, and the alcohol (18% abv) was a bit hot and out of balance.  There were flavors of dried cherry, dried cranberry, raisins and prunes.  The wine was enjoyable enough, if not terrifically complex, but the price point on it is much too high.  It is interesting and different but $50 for 500 mL is about double what I'd feel comfortable paying for something like this.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Petit Manseng - Jurançon, France and Northern Virginia, USA

Fringe Wine has been on a bit of a break over the past week or so, partly as a result of a personal vacation and partly as a result of attending the most recent Taste Camp event in northern Virginia.  While I wasn't intimately familiar with the wines of Virginia before making the trip, I did know enough to know that there were a few specialties of the region that I definitely wanted to check out.  The two that were highest on my list were the Norton grape (which I'll write about later this week) and the Petit Manseng grape.  While Norton was a little harder to come by than I had anticipated, I was able to find several different Petit Manseng based wines that I'd like to take a look at in today's post.

As mentioned in my previous post on Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng is a member of the Manseng family of grapes.  The Manseng family is similar to the Pinot family or the Traminer family in that all of its members are mutations of a single ancestral berry.  In the Pinot family, that single grape was Pinot Noir while in the Manseng family, that grape was Mangseng Noir, a little used but still grown red grape from southwestern France.  Manseng Noir is genetically very unstable, much like Pinot Noir, and is very prone to spontaneous mutations in the field.  Over the years, growers have isolated and cultivated some of these mutations and the mutations of those mutations until they ended up with something that is genetically very similar to the parent plant (and which often cannot be differentiated from it using standard genetic parentage tests), but which is very different somatically, which is a fancy way of saying that it looks and behaves differently in the field.

Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng are the two most widely grown and best known members of the Manseng family.  The two grapes are differentiated from one another based on the size of the grape clusters as well as the size of the individual berries.  If you know even a little French you can probably guess that Petit Manseng has the smaller clusters and berries.  Petit Manseng is considered the higher quality cultivar of the two, but plantings in France of Petit Manseng stand only at about 600 hectares to more than 2,000 for Gros Manseng.  Gros Manseng is a much more prolific yielder than Petit Manseng, which is why it is more widely grown in southwestern France.

Petit Manseng plays second fiddle not only in its native southwestern France, but also in its new world home, Virginia, where it lives in the shadow of Virginia's adopted signature white grape Viognier.  Winemakers in Virginia have fully embraced Viognier and most of the dozens of wineries we tasted wines from throughout the course of Taste Camp had at least one Viognier that they wanted to show us, while only one winery (Tarara Vineyards) poured us a Petit Manseng.  My wife and I went off-track after Taste Camp had ended to track down a few other Petit Mansengs, and my tasting notes for all four of the wines I was able to find are below.

Petit Manseng is well suited to the climate in Virginia.  It is a very high acid grape that demands a long, warm growing season in order to get ripe enough to keep some of that acidity in check.  This presentation from Virginia Tech shows that Petit Manseng grown in 2005 had a total acidity of 8.08 (pH 3.28) while Chardonnay grown in the same area in the same year had a total acidity of 4.85 (pH 3.81).  Virginia's growing season is generally warm and sunny enough to allow Petit Manseng to reach good ripeness levels, and even when it isn't, Petit Manseng's thick skins and loose berry clusters allow the grapes to hang on the vine for a little bit longer without risk of disease if they need just a bit more time to cross the finish line.  The major problem with having Petit Manseng get ripe enough to tame its acidity is that it is also extraordinarily high in sugar when ripe.  The winemaker at Tarara told us that in 2010, if he had fermented his Petit Manseng grapes to full dryness, the finished wine may have been over 17% alcohol.

It's no wonder then that most of the examples from France are made as dessert wines rather than dry table wines.  I was able to track down a half bottle of the 2007 Domaine Bellegarde "Cuvée Thibault" which is a 100% Petit Manseng wine made in the Jurançon region of southwestern France.  I picked this half bottle up for $18 from my friends at the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon-gold color with hints of bronze (wines made from Petit Manseng tend to be deeply colored since the skins are so thick).  The nose was moderately aromatic with honey, pineapple, ripe grapefruit, beeswax, brown sugar and baked apples.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with high acidity.  It was very sweet with flavors of honey, pineapple, burnt sugar, ripe grapefruit, orange marmalade, green apple and baked apple. The flavors were bright and racy and overall the wine was very nicely balanced with the acidity holding up the sugar quite well.  It's a nice, reasonably affordable dessert wine that is hard to dislike.

Of the Virginia Petit Mansengs that I bought, the Glen Manor "Raepheus" was perhaps the closest in style to the French wine above.  Glen Manor wasn't represented at Taste Camp other than by a bottle that the fine folks over at Swirl, Sip, Snark brought to the BYOB wine dinner on day two of the event.  I was so impressed by that bottle that I made it a point to get out to Glen Manor to sample more of their wines once Taste Camp ended.  2010 was an extraordinarily hot year in Virginia (and everywhere else on the east coast) and the Petit Manseng grapes got very ripe across the state.  This wine is marketed as a late harvest wine, but the winery's website says that the grapes were actually harvested September 5, 2010 (their 2011 Sauvignon Blanc vines were harvest August 25 and September 3, 2011, to give you some perspective).  Raepheus is only sold in half bottles and goes for $25 directly from the winery.  In the glass this wine was a fairly deep lemon gold.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of pineapple, honey, ripe grapefruit and beeswax.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with acidity on the higher side of medium.  The wine was very sweet and just a touch hot as the alcohol level for this wine was close to 15%.  There were flavors of honey, pineapple, lemon marmalade, ruby grapefruit and citrus peel.  It was very nice, but not quite as complex as the Bellegarde wine, which isn't too surprising considering that it's three years younger and could definitely benefit from some time in the bottle.  They only made 75 cases of this wine, so pick them up while you still can.

On the second night of Taste Camp the good people at North Gate Vineyards hosted a BYOB wine dinner where all of the Taste Camp attendees brought several bottles of wine to share with the group.  There were over 80 bottles of wine opened at the event, but one of the wines that really stuck with me was the 2011 Glen Manor Petit Manseng.  Many winemakers told us throughout the weekend that 2011 was a terrible year with more than one telling us that it was the worst year they've ever seen in Virginia.  It was rainy and cool towards the end of the growing season and many of the vines weren't able to get as ripe as the growers might have liked (and those that did were waterlogged and diluted from the month-long rain at harvest).  These problems must have been much more serious for the red grapes than for the white ones because I thoroughly enjoyed most of the white wines that we tried from the 2011 vintage, including this bottle which was definitely one of my favorite wines of the weekend.  In the glass this was a fairly deep lemon gold color with some greenish tints.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of grapefruit, honey, melon, pear, pineapple, beeswax and citrus peel.  On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acidity.  It was medium-sweet with flavors of honey, pink grapefruit, honeysuckle flower, lemon curd, green apple, beeswax, pineapple and mint leaves with a touch of stony minerality on the finish.  The wine was explosively flavored and incredibly dense and layered.  The alcohol was still a bit high (I didn't write it down but I think it was close to 14%) and it stuck out just a bit, but overall I thought this was a phenomenal wine not only in terms of balance but in terms of flavor as well.  The price for this bottle at the winery was $20 and it was worth every penny of it.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to stop in at Chester Gap Cellars which is just a few miles from Glen Manor.  The guys at Swirl, Sip, Snark recommended the place to us and since they hadn't led us astray yet, we followed their advice.  The tasting room at Chester Gap has a stunning view which was worth the slight detour all on its own.  Their 2010 Petit Manseng was selling for about $22, so we picked a bottle up.  In the glass the wine was a deep lemon gold color.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of honey, grapefruit, grapefruit peel, baked apple and green apple.  On the palate the wine was full bodied with medium acidity.  It was very sweet with rich, luscious flavors of honey, vanilla creme, ripe red grapefruit, baked apple, baked pear and pineapples in syrup.  This wine had the least acidity of any that I tried and it suffered for it.  It was sort of like drinking a pineapple crème brûlée, which sounds and is really appetizing at first, but as you keep drinking it, it all gets to be a bit too much.  The alcohol level on this wine was 14.8% and it wore it pretty well, though it did pop up with a little heat on the finish.  I feel like if I had bought this in a half bottle then I would have felt better about it as it really drinks more like a dessert wine than a table wine.

The last bottle that I picked up was the 2011 Petit Manseng from Tarara Winery, which the Taste Camp group visited on Day 2 of our weekend adventure.  The winemaker poured all of us a glass of this wine as we piled onto the back of a couple of tractors that then took us to some of the Tarara vineyards.  Tractor tasting is not an art that I can say that I've mastered so I was glad that I was able to buy a bottle of this for $22 so that I could try it in a more neutral environment.  In the glass the wine was a fairly deep lemon gold.  The nose was fairly intense with aromas of honey, pineapple, ripe grapefruit, beeswax, vanilla, orange creme and citrus peel.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  Unlike any of the other wines, this one was just off-dry.  The flavor palette was somewhat muted with honeysuckle flower, pineapple, golden apples and beeswax.  It was much more subdued than any of the other Petit Mansengs we tried and seemed to capture more of the difficulties of the 2011 vintage than the Glen Manor wine did.  It was nice enough, but I'd reach for the Glen Manor wine over this one every time.

I was pleased with most of the Petit Mansengs that we were able to try and think that the grape has an interesting future in Virginia.  Most of the table wines made from it are off-dry by necessity which may attract some wine drinkers but may scare away those who believe that any trace of sweetness in a wine is a reason for instant condemnation and is the sign of an inferior wine.  I hope those wine drinkers are ignored and more wines with interesting balances between acid and sugar are produced.  I don't think that Virginia Petit Mansengs are ever going to replace great German Rieslings but it would be very interesting to watch them try.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Parellada - Catalunya, Spain

I've been sitting here trying to figure out what there is to say about the Parellada grape for several hours, and I'm just not having any luck.  It's one of those grapes where we know just a little bit about it, and that seems to have completely satisfied everybody's curiosity. I was actually really excited when I got the chance to buy a wine made from 100% Parellada grapes because I'd never seen one before (and I haven't seen once since) and I expected that there would be some kind of foothold I could get, some kind of an opening for a story once I sat down to do my research, but it looks like I was wrong.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Parellada may be the most boring grape in the world to try to research and if you've come here to read something interesting and exciting about it, I'm afraid I'm about to disappoint you.

A few weeks back I wrote about the Xarel-lo grape, which is one of the three major white grapes used in the production of Cava.  Xarel-lo is kind of the middle child of the Cava family, playing second fiddle to Macabeo but still overshadowing its partner Parellada.  To use an Alvin and the Chipmunks metaphor, it is the Theodore to Macabeo's Alvin and Parellada's Simon.  Parellada covers about half as much ground as Xarel-lo in the Penedès region of Spain (where most Cava is made) which puts its planting figures in this area at a still-respectable 25,000 acres (though it still has a long way to go to catch Airén at 750,000 acres).  While Macabeo and Xarel-lo have started to show up more and more in varietal table wines, Parellada is still used almost exclusively as a blending grape not only in the production of Cava, but also in a handful of other wines throughout Spain.  It does best in cooler regions with poor soils but has a tendency to over-crop and make bland wines in richer, more fertile areas.  The grapes themselves are large and loosely bunched in the clusters which makes it less susceptible to fungal diseases like botrytis.

And that's pretty much it.  Those are all of the interesting things I can think to say about Parellada.

The wine that I was able to try was the 2008 Torres "Mas Rabell" from the Catalunya region of Spain.  I picked it up for about $7 from my friends at Bin Ends.  In the glass the wine was a light greenish lemon color.  The nose was moderately intense with aromas of green apple, pear and lime citrus with a hint of something slightly herbal or vegetal.  On the palate the wine was light bodied with fairly high acidity, which makes sense since Parellada does have slightly higher natural acidity than the other two Cava grapes.  There were zippy flavors of lemon citrus and green apple fruit with a kind of bitter, pithy finish.  The vegetal note I picked up on the nose carried through on the palate and reminded me of braised celery or fennel bulb.  That vegetal edge kept me from really loving this wine, but I found it plenty enjoyable for the money.  It's a light, crisp, summertime kind of wine that would be excellent with something like raw oysters.  Even though the story behind the grape wasn't that fascinating at least the wine itself was good.